How We’re Making Publicly Available Data More User Friendly

By Maggie McCullough

Maggie McCullough is the CEO and founder of PolicyMap.

Feb 5, 2018 | Society, Technology | 0 comments

We live in an age of data. Big companies like Google and Amazon are using data to refine their products and target advertising.  Researchers and planners are using data to come up with ways of improving where we live.

But is data something that non-experts can use, for their jobs or everyday use?

 

The Data Is Out There

There is a ton of free, high-quality, public data released by government agencies, which can be used by anyone. This data could help a student with a project, help a small organization find areas of need, or help a city planner get a quick overview of their area.

There is an abundance of data available for public download. The Census Bureau alone has a huge amount of valuable information, going down to the neighborhood-level. There’s the basic stuff: race, age, income, things like that. And that’s incredibly useful. But maybe you’re interested in something more specific: language spoken at home, people with GEDs, people without health insurance.

 

The Data Isn’t Easy To Use

And there’s a lot more data available than the Census data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has unemployment and industry data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an incredible amount of health data. Want high school graduation rates? The National Center for Education Statistics has that. Broadband availability? Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Flood zones? Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

And that’s not even considering some of the affordable proprietary data available for purchase, covering topics like home sales, vacancy, and school performance.

It’s good data, and it can be used to make decisions on how to solve real problems.

But there’s a problem: It’s not always easy to find or to use. The data you want may come from three different sources. It might not be clear which indicators are right for you. It might not be clear what data is valid. It might not be clear how to download it. And even if you get that far, you may have seven different files from four websites, all with differently formatted data that you need to clean.

Data comes in many formats; there’s long format data, there’s wide format data, there are XLS files, there are CSV files. American Community Survey (ACS) Census Bureau summary files have their column headers in a different file. There’s a lot of great data from Longitudinal Employer – Household Dynamics, but accessing it requires downloading and processing almost a terabyte of data, far beyond the capacity of an inexperienced data user.

 

How ACS data looks.

 

How BLS unemployment data looks.

 

Oh, and good luck getting it on a map, unless you’ve taken GIS classes.

 

Typical GIS toolbar.

 

There are enough obstacles that people who could really benefit don’t take advantage of what’s available.

 

Make Data Easier to Access

And that’s how PolicyMap came into being. It was started by a community development financial institution (Reinvestment Fund, in Philadelphia), almost ten years ago. They had the in-house expertise to obtain and work with the data, but saw how many other similar organizations didn’t, and how much access to data would help them.

PolicyMap is two things: It’s an online data warehouse and a mapping platform.

 

Building a Data Warehouse

We have a whole team dedicated to data. We’re keeping track of data updates, looking for new data, validating data, deciding what data is useful and what data is isn’t, and writing clear labels describing what the data is.

On our website, users can easily find the data they want by either navigating our thematic menus (Demographics, Health, Education, Economy, etc.), or by searching for specific terms. And just like that, they have the data. Data is downloadable in a consistent, usable format.

We’ve gotten so adept at keeping our data simple to use and up-to-date that some larger entities subscribe to our API, just so they can get all the data they need from one place.

 

Mapping Platform

Most of PolicyMap’s users want the data for a specific purpose: To put it on a map. And so, as our name implies, that’s the first thing you get when you open an indicator on our site. Maps can show distinct patterns, such as where poverty exists, where high-paying jobs are, or where diseases are prevalent.

 

 

It also makes it easy to get exact values for a specific place; type in an address, and immediately know the median income for your neighborhood.

 

 

Desktop GIS applications are amazingly advanced in the analytical tools they offer, but are also notoriously difficult to use, even for trained professionals. PolicyMap offers an alternative when what you really need is to map the data. Of course, advanced users can use PolicyMap to download the data, and then run their more advanced analyses.

PolicyMap offers an analytical tool of its own: 3-Layer Maps. You can choose one, two, or three indicators, and find areas that match specific criteria. For example, if you wanted to find areas in your city where Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are being underutilized, you might bring up data on poverty and SNAP recipients, and show areas where poverty is high, but SNAP use is low. Then use that information to fix a problem.

 

Make Data Available for Everyone

If data is publicly available, it’s free to access on PolicyMap, for anyone. That’s been one of our core principles from the beginning, even though charging for everything would be more lucrative. We do offer subscriptions, with data from private sources, and additional features, like 3-Layer Maps, reports, and the ability to load your own data. We also have relationships with organizations, businesses, and governments to make custom applications for their purposes.

But at the end of the day, what’s important is that data is available for everyone.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

COVID-19 is Creating the Largest Ever Telecommunity, But Not for Everyone

COVID-19 is Creating the Largest Ever Telecommunity, But Not for Everyone

Social distancing is becoming the new normal, at least for those of us who are heeding the Center for Disease Control’s warnings and guidelines. But if you don’t have reliable, high-speed broadband, it is impossible to engage in what is now the world’s largest telecommunity. As many schools and universities around the world (including those of my kids) are shut down, these institutions are optimistically converting to online and digital learning. However, with our current broadband layout, this movement will certainly leave many Americans behind.

How to Move More People with Fewer Vehicles

How to Move More People with Fewer Vehicles

Accenture analysts recently released a report calling for cities to take the lead in creating coordinated, “orchestrated” mobility ecosystems. Limiting shared services to routes that connect people with mass transit would be one way to deploy human-driven services now and to prepare for driverless service in the future. Services and schedules can be linked at the backend, and operators can, for example, automatically send more shared vehicles to a train station when the train has more passengers than usual, or tell the shared vehicles to wait for a train that is running late.

Managing urban congestion and mobility comes down to the matter of managing space. Cities are characterized by defined and restricted residential, commercial, and transportation spaces. Private autos are the most inefficient use of transportation space, and mass transit represents the most efficient use of transportation space. Getting more people out of private cars, and into shared feeder routes to and from mass transit modes is the most promising way to reduce auto traffic. Computer models show that it can be done, and we don’t need autonomous vehicles to realize the benefits of shared mobility.

Planning for Arts and Culture in San Diego

Planning for Arts and Culture in San Diego

The role of government, and the planning community, is perhaps to facilitate these kinds of partnerships and make it easier for serendipity to occur. While many cities mandate a portion of the development budget toward art, this will not necessarily result in an ongoing benefit to the arts community as in most cases the budget is used for public art projects versus creating opportunities for cultural programming.  

Rather than relying solely on this mandate, planners might want to consider educating developers with examples and case studies about the myriad ways that artists can participate in the development process. Likewise, outreach and education for the arts community about what role they can play in projects may stimulate a dialogue that can yield great results. In this sense, the planning community can be an invaluable translator in helping all parties to discover a richer, more inspiring, common language.

Share This